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Last Summer Series Offers an Opportunity for Self-Care

Let’s face it. It’s been a rough year.

First, the COVID-19 pandemic emptied offices and sent many employees searching for a corner of the house to work from, while taxed parents struggled to simultaneously homeschool their children, all while trying to protect their families from infection. The virus quickly began taking the lives of many across the country. As we were all still struggling to cope, issues of racial injustice erupted, piling on more trauma and stress. Six months later, it’s all still happening, with no clear end in sight.

Recognizing the cumulative emotional toll of the events of 2020 – on just about everyone – CEWD opted to dedicate its final Summer Learning Series session to its members as people, not in their roles as professionals. In August, there was no lesson on how to navigate the new normal, no tips on how to transition to virtual anything, or discussion of difficult social issues. Instead, CEWD offered its members an opportunity to destress.

“We wanted to recognize that there’s not a lot that’s particularly normal about the way we’re all working, and, to some extent, the way many of us are living,” said CEWD Executive Director Missy Henriksen, addressing those on the August 31 live webinar titled, “Self-Love and Self-Appreciation in Times of Stress.”

“We wanted to recognize that there’s not a lot that’s particularly normal about the way we’re all working, and, to some extent, the way many of us are living. Self-Love and Self-Appreciation in Times of Stress.”

Missy Henriksen

Executive Director, CEWD

“We wanted to have a conversation more as people than as professionals. So today is about you,” she told listeners.

Bill Krieger, Senior Veterans Consultant for Consumers Energy and Baird McKevitt, Director of Inclusion and Diversity for Xcel Energy, launched the webinar by answering a series of questions about how they were coping, posed by moderator Becky Meggesin, a CEWD consultant.

“I would say the biggest challenge I faced was that I conduct business face to face,” said Krieger. “I am not a fan of email or even phone calls. Not having the ability to have those interactions between meetings, or being able to stop by and see people has been hard. I had to change the way I do business.”

“The other challenge I faced is that I have PTSD and anxiety, and routines are good for managing that. “So I had to develop new routines.”

Bill Krieger

Senior Veterans Consultant, Consumers Energy

“The other challenge I faced is that I have PTSD and anxiety, and routines are good for managing that,” he said. “So I had to develop new routines.”

For example, said Krieger, he now goes for walks while he’s speaking with coworkers on the phone. He also learned to bake bread with his wife, which was both a coping mechanism for destressing, a way of spending quality time with his spouse, and, an added benefit – a health lesson. “It has only four ingredients and most of them are easily pronounced,” he joked.

Krieger said he also took the time to have difficult conversations with his grown children, who were struggling with their own issues related to the pandemic, such as joblessness.

Reaching beyond his family, Krieger created a program called “Me, You, Us,” to help veterans cope with mental health issues. Initially envisioned as a series of in-person events, Krieger reconfigured the program into live podcasts when the pandemic hit.

Krieger explained that his passion for helping others sprang from his own experience with anxiety, panic attacks and thoughts of suicide related to his time in the military. “In the National Guard, when you return from combat, you’re back at work two weeks later,” Krieger said. “I remember pulling into the parking lot and thinking, ‘It’s going to be a fantastic day today.’ Not because the sun was shining or it was Friday, but because no one had shot at me and nothing had blown up. And I wondered, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ I was ready to take my own life, not because I wanted to die, but because I was just tired. But for a phone call from a friend checking in on me, I wouldn’t be sitting in this chair today.”

“I realized that I needed to share my story with others,” he said, knowing it would be worth it if doing so meant “even one person didn’t have to go down this road that I went down.”

Krieger said all of these experiences taught him that “control is an illusion. We don’t control anything except how we react to what’s happening in the world around us.”

He chooses to focus on gratitude. “Things have really changed for us, but I still have a job, my job still matters, I am able to function. So many people don’t have that, so many people are out of work,” said Krieger. “We’ve been rethinking our charitable giving, thinking about where we can give more, and where we can help more. We’re looking at it through that lens and we’re stronger for it.”

McKevitt, who is working from home with his wife and four children, spoke about the importance of striking a balance between work, family and self when traditional boundaries become blurred. “I’ve tried to be very thoughtful about setting up those boundaries,” he said. “Having a door closed behind me does not always stop my six-year-old. You have to decide when it’s family time, and when it’s not.”

While everybody needs “time to decompress and time for themselves,” he said, sometimes it’s helpful to include one-on-one time with a family member when destressing. For example, McKevitt took his four-year-old with him to walk the dog one day and noticed that, “how he takes the world in is a very different experience from the way I do.”

By watching his children quickly adapt to so many changes, McKevitt said, he learned to appreciate everything his family had and not complain about what they didn’t have. “Watching them overcome hardship and just go on with the new normal, that’s helped me learn how to take on this new normal in a way that makes sense to me.”

For example, McKevitt learned to be more deliberate in checking on his employees, to see how they were coping. “Whether it’s by email or phone, I let them know daily that I am there to help and support them,” he said, adding that he has also learned to do this “as a spouse and parent, and lately, as a son.”

He’s also communicating on a deeper level, trying to get to know more about the people who work for him. “Everybody is experiencing COVID-19 differently,” McKevitt said. ‘Everybody is experiencing events like George Floyd’s murder differently. And everyone has different family situations going on. My advice is to continue to learn from your peers and your employees and understand the unique situations they are in. Meet your people where they are today, because everybody is in a different spot. Try to be as empathetic and flexible as you can.”

“Everybody is experiencing COVID-19 differently. Everybody is experiencing events like George Floyd’s murder differently. And everyone has different family situations going on. My advice is to continue to learn from your peers and your employees and understand the unique situations they are in. Meet your people where they are today, because everybody is in a different spot. Try to be as empathetic and flexible as you can.”

Baird McKevitt

Director of Inclusion and Diversity , Xcel Energy

McKevitt also advised people to find ways to relieve stress and identify when it was time to engage in those activities before the stress became too overwhelming. “You know when you get too hungry and you get into that hangry phase, I think that happens with emotions as well. You can feel the buildup. Recognize that overload coming before it’s a true overload and get out and do something for yourself.”

“Stress is a normal physical response to change. It can help you be more focused and alert.” 

Patricia Thompson, PhD

corporate psychologist and executive coach

Patricia Thompson, PhD, a corporate psychologist and executive coach, followed McKevitt and Krieger with a description of how stress affects the body and tips for how to cope with it.

“Stress is a normal physical response to change,” she said. “It can help you be more focused and alert.” But, she explained, when stress becomes chronic or when non-threatening events trigger a stress response, it can be damaging.

“You feel exhausted, not because your body is working hard but because your brain is. Even a sense of unease can accumulate across time. You need a lot of physical energy for cognitive work. In a sense, it’s sucking up your energy. A lot of people are saying they feel tired and worn out, and this is what’s causing that.”

The good news, she said, is that there are many things people can do to prevent the harm stress can cause. One study, she noted, found people’s perceptions of stress could change the body’s reaction to it, lowering its harmful impacts.

“Next time you are feeling overwhelmed,” she said, “try to look at the situation differently, as a challenge instead of a threat. It will help to ground you and calm you down.”

Thompson offered alternative coping mechanisms for when that strategy wasn’t effective:

1. Diaphragmatic breathing. Sit up straight with one hand on your chest and one on your abdomen. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth, as you count slowly to five. Focus on slowly filling your abdomen with air, as if inflating a balloon. Repeat.

2. Radical acceptance. Resisting what’s happening only adds layers of stress and anxiety to an already negative situation. Wishing things were different does not make them so. Accept reality for what it is, so that you can make decisions for how to deal with it from a place of calm and clarity.

3. Permission to feel what you feel. Don’t suppress or deny your feelings. Get them out. Cry if you need to. Burn off your anger by channeling it into healthy activities, such as exercise. Embrace happy emotions as well. Do a happy dance.

4. Self-compassion. Give yourself the same kindness and care that you would give to a good friend. You may be flawed and imperfect but love yourself anyway and don’t set up unrealistic expectations for yourself.

5. Save time with money. People who spend money on things that save them time (e.g. a housekeeper) are happier. Use that extra time to enjoy activities with loved ones or hobbies that bring you joy.

6. Social support. If you are lonely or overwhelmed, reach out to friends and family for support. People who do so are happier and healthier.

7. Boundaries. Give yourself permission to unplug and step away from work and other stressors.

8. Exercise and nutrition. These are critical to well-being. Also, spend time in nature and focus on being grateful for what you have, rather than focusing on what you don’t have.

9. Inventories. Make a list of stressors and next to each item, write down something you can do about it. Some items might not have solutions, but many will, and seeing those will help.

Finally, Thompson advised, commit to at least one thing you can do relieve your stress. Then do it.